What really matters in smart watches and why some watchmakers are screwed

The Verge ran an article entitled Google and Amazon killed their Apple Watch apps and it went unnoticed for weeks, and it set off alarm bells for me. Oh god, is the Apple Watch really just a trinket that’s had a fun run, but nobody besides me gives a shit about it? My fears were alleviated a few days later when Apple announced Apple Watch sales nearly doubled over last year, but this got me thinking about what smart watches, not only the Apple Watch, were good for.

I feel quite strongly at this point that smart watches really need to be made by the platform owner to be worth a damn. For the iPhone, that means the Apple Watch is the only smart watch with a shot at success. Third parties like Pebble (RIP) and Withings can try, but they will never be able to make something that taps into iOS in a meaningful way. Like wise, only smartwatches that run Android Wear are worth considering for those using Android phones. Pebble-style watches and Fitbit’s sorta-smart watches just don’t stand up.

And I think this is somewhat true of the apps on smart watches too; the apps that Apple makes for watchOS are a whole lot more important than what anyone else makes. Google removed their Maps app and no one noticed. Well no shit, the Google Maps app on the Apple Watch is way worse than the Apple Maps one. Apple Maps on the Watch has more access to do things third party apps can’t. It can launch itself automatically when you start navigation on the iPhone, and it’s the only way to navigate when using Siri directly on the Apple Watch itself. There are other apps that have similar benefits, and these benefits are not only for watchOS, it’s also true of Android Wear.

A big thing we’ve learned over the past few years is we simply don’t really want “apps” in the way we have come to expect them in the post-App Store world. I don’t want a home screen on my wrist where I can scroll through 100 apps and find the one I want, I want my watch to present information to me when it’s relevant and let me act on it right then and there. A reason Apple Watch apps aren’t used that much is that you don’t need your favorite apps to build Watch apps to get value from them on the Apple Watch. No, because your notifications are sent to the Apple Watch and you can act on them just like you can from the iPhone, there often isn’t a need for an app on the Watch. If I get a reply from someone on Twitter, for example, Twitterrific displays a notification on my wrist and I can dismiss it, favorite it, or reply to it with my voice or the surprisingly good “scribble” feature. I don’t even know if Twitterrific has built an Apple Watch app, but I do know that I feel like I’m getting the interaction I want from Twitterrific on my Apple Watch whether a Watch app exists or not.

Back in 2014 before the Apple Watch released, we were talking about 15 second experiences on smart watches. That turned out to be way too long, and any smart watch app that has a 15 second interaction time has failed. I’d honestly say that the average interaction I have with my Apple Watch is 1-2 seconds. I raise my wrist to see my watch face complications, or to see the notification that came in, or to control my media playback, or to see what my next turn is while navigating, or seeing how my current workout is going. The list goes on, but all of these interactions are lightning quick, and almost never involve more than a tap or two. If an action is going to take 15 seconds, I’m going to get my phone and do it there.

Third party apps absolutely have a place on smart watches, but all of this is to drive home the point that smart watch makers not using watchOS or Android Wear are doomed because all they can use are third party apps. Pebble proved there was value in the smart watch space, and they deserve major credit for putting out the first serious smart watch, but looking at what smart watches are really good at, I don’t see another Pebble coming along.

Apple Watch will always be better than third party smart watches, and Apple apps will always have more capabilities than third party apps. With that in mind, I hope Apple is focusing their efforts on making the Watch UI and their own built in apps better, and a little less time on fleshing out the third party app experience. By all means make the platform as good for developers as you can, but more meaningful gains will be made by improving Apple’s own services. Maybe in a couple years we can talk about starting to focus on third party capabilities, but we’re not there yet.